Healing the warrior

Fort Hood has been an innovator in the battle against combat stress

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

FORT HOOD, TEX. -- Families from Georgia to California buried their Fort Hood dead over the weekend, but here on the nation's largest military installation, the pace of operations did not slow. Soldiers by the hundred bid tearful farewells and shipped out to war as others returned to joyous homecomings.

For those who made it back, the Nov. 5 attack that made Fort Hood a symbol of the collateral damage of two faraway conflicts is also a reminder of the battle the Army post has been waging against the mental demons unleashed by combat.

Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the killings, was a recent arrival to a mental health corps that had won recent plaudits from the Pentagon's highest echelons for its innovative thinking about soldier health. Yet the violence he allegedly unleashed only weeks before his own deployment underscores the depths of the military's challenges and the limits of its most well-intentioned reach.

More than 75 people based at Fort Hood have committed suicide since the Iraq war began in March 2003, including 10 this year, one of the highest rates in the Army. Divorce, depression and violence are increasingly common among the thousands of soldiers who cycle through here, officials say.

Yet spaces exist for only a fraction of the soldiers who need help, officials say. For a soldier not considered in urgent psychiatric distress, it takes three to five weeks to begin counseling sessions, a senior staff psychiatrist reported. Resistance to seeking treatment can be fierce in a world where steeled emotions are typically considered a sign of strength.

To heal the corps, Fort Hood commanders are moving beyond standard commands that soldiers simply suck it up. Sending a message that to hurt is human, to seek help divine, they hope to draw returning warriors into networks of support. It is too early to know whether the programs will succeed.

For example, on the vast Army post cloaked in drab, Fort Hood's new Spiritual Fitness Center offers color. Inside, sunlight filters through stained glass of lavender and blue. Candles are surrounded in dishes of polished stones and George Winston piano solos flow from speakers above.

"We like to call this place 'listening and love,' " Lt. Col. Ira Houck, a chaplain, explained from deep in an overstuffed armchair, one week after the shootings left 13 people dead and dozens wounded.

If the concept sounds New Age, it is. The converted chapel in the heart of the newly christened Resiliency Campus offers a refuge for broken and distressed soldiers.

Yet Sgt. Matthew Spencer, a combat veteran who works as a greeter at the center, laughs when he says he and his buddies would never seek help here.

"I am from the infantry. We don't come to places like this," Spencer, 24, said above the strains of an Ennio Morricone composition. "Why don't we come? We've got each other."

"That's the battle right there," said M. David Rudd, a former Fort Hood psychologist who is studying post-combat stress for the Defense Department. He cites the military's macho culture as one reason.

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